Though technically an Amazon Original Series, Woody Allen’s Crisis In Six Scenes runs only 20 or 30 minutes longer than most of his films. If you remove the element of segmenting the story into six, 22-minute episodes, the latest creation from the mind that gave us Annie Hall and Manhattan is almost indiscernible from anything else Allen has created. It’s neither great nor terrible, falling somewhere between the dialogue-driven goodness of Cafe Society and the dull romance of Magic In The Moonlight, but it should still be considered required viewing for anyone who claims to be a fan of the aging auteur’s work.
Set at the height of the war in Vietnam, Crisis In Six Scenes tells a very simple story about what happens when one elderly couple’s life is turned upside down by an unexpected visit from a wanted felon. Allen stars opposite Elaine May as Sidney J. Munsinger, a creative type who is anxious about an upcoming opportunity to pitch a new family sitcom. His wife, Kay (May), is the anchor that keeps him grounded when his fear of failure begins to take hold. Kay also presides over a book club filled with her closest friends and runs a small marriage counseling business from the couple’s home, both of which keep their house filled with brilliant personalities that both annoy and fascinate Sidney in equal measure.
One night, Sidney and Kay wake to learn someone has broken into their home. In their kitchen they find Lennie Dale (Miley Cyrus), a fugitive radical wanted for breaking out of prison and harming a guard. Lennie has a family connection to Kay, and she seeks somewhere to hide out until the heat dies down. Kay opens the couple’s home to Lennie, but Sidney is not so sure it’s a good idea. In typical Allen fashion, Sid irrationally fears the worst possible outcome for aiding a felon, which he imagines will entail being interrogated or even tortured by the FBI.
Alan Brockton (John Magaro), another guest of the Munsingers, is staying in the couple’s spare room when Lennie first comes to town. He recognizes Lennie from the news, but promises to keep her location a secret after discovering her in the couple’s backyard. The two soon begin to fall for one another, which causes problems with Alan’s fiancee, but Lennie refuses to succumb to the attraction they share. For her, fighting ‘the man’ and working to make the world a better place takes precedent over her own happiness, which of course only makes Alan love her more.
The bulk of Crisis In Six Scenes deals with the way Lennie’s presence in the lives of the Munsingers turns their lives, as well as the lives of the people they know, upside down. Her radical ideas—both good and bad—are cause for conversation and investigation. Kay and Alan believe her to be some kind of revolutionary put on this Earth to wake the sleeping sheep of America and call them to action, but Sidney prefers to see her as trouble. In his mind, the only major problems facing the world are those that do not directly impact his life, which is all the reasoning he needs to abstain from fighting for change.
Allen also uses Crisis to further explore ideas that fans and longtime followers will know to be fairly common in his work, including the limits of love, the longevity of relationships, the meaning of life, and the potential non-existence of God. It’s that last one that seems to fascinate Allen the most this time around, with Sidney finding a way to reference death and/or religion in every single episode. Sidney both denies the existence of God, yet fears the repercussions of being wrong about that belief, which again is a character trait often found in Allen’s recent work.
While there are zingers and quips to spare, the lack of plot makes the show feel surprisingly hollow long before the final episode begins. There is a mystery behind Lennie’s presence and what it means for the characters of Crisis, but when the truth is revealed, life doesn’t change as much as it becomes momentarily more complicated. The final episode attempts to tie together all the loose threads of the series while giving literally every character a chance to express themselves and it ultimately makes for a very messy and underwhelming finale. No one is expecting Allen to make striking social commentary at this point, but the veteran filmmaker seems to have no interest whatsoever in giving his latest universe of characters a proper ending. Things just kind of stop, and that may be the most frustrating aspect of this whole affair.
The characters of Crisis In Six Scenes are largely one-dimensional, and given the lack of tension inherent in the plot it’s this shortcoming that ultimately prevents the series from blossoming into something truly great. Alan, for example, is obsessed with Lennie from the moment they meet and spends nearly every minute of screen time attempting to convince her to feel the same. Lennie, meanwhile, is fiercely focused on combating ‘the man’ in whatever shape or form he/it takes next. The only exception to this rule is Kay, whose relationships with everyone, including the world around her, evolve over the course of the show. Kay begins as what Lennie calls a sheep, but over the course of the show she slowly transforms into a passionate radical in her own right. May shines in this performance, and by the time the credits role it is her work as Kay that shines brightest overall.
Allen famously told reporters he had no idea what he was doing when he agreed to create an original series for Amazon. Though I thoroughly enjoyed Crisis In Six Scenes I feel I must say that Allen was right to be concerned. Crisis feels more like an extended film than a series, and given the aging storyteller’s complete lack of desire to create a second season or expand his show’s universe beyond what is presented here, I have to imagine it might have been better made as a feature, with about 15 minutes cut for the sake of a slightly tighter narrative, of course.